“With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
And our chances really was a million to one
“As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices, they were few so the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter or split”*
I was saddened by a headline and article in The Washington Post by Paul A. Djupe, associate professor of political science at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, citing a poll that suggested Democrats and atheists frighten white evangelicals and fuel evangelicals’ fears that civil war is likely to break out as a result of Democrats’ and atheists’ possible success in the upcoming election.
With his colleague, political scientist Ryan Burge, Djupe “…ran a non-probability sample survey from May 17–18 of 1,010 U.S. Protestants, conducted online through Qualtrics Panels and weighted to resemble the diversity of Protestants in the country. White evangelical Protestants made up 60 percent of our sample.”
The Post’s headline and subhead read:
“Right-wing media is warning of a civil war — and urging evangelicals to stock up on guns”
In analyzing their findings, Djupe writes, “Our research found that white evangelical Protestants believe atheists and Democrats would strip away their rights.”
“Of those white evangelical Protestants, we found that 60 percent believed that atheists would not allow them First Amendment rights and liberties. More specifically, we asked whether they believed atheists would prevent them from being able to ‘hold rallies, teach, speak freely, and run for public office.’ Similarly, 58 percent believed ‘Democrats in Congress’ would not allow them to exercise these liberties if they were in power. By contrast, 23 percent think ‘Republicans in Congress’ would not respect their rights; those were primarily the views of a small contingent of white evangelical Democrats in the sample.
“These are extraordinary proportions for a core question in democratic societies: Are citizens willing to extend rights to groups they dislike? If not, the political process can no longer fairly resolve disputes and the nation may turn to violence — just as far-right commentators and public officials are predicting.”
For the record, I am a 70-year-old white, middle-class, left-of-center, protestant, who bears no ill will toward evangelicals, nor do I harbor any thoughts of taking away any of their rights, denying them their rallies, preventing them from running for and holding public office, or in any way pigeonholing them into neatly defined boxes. All I ask of evangelicals in return is what I ask of anyone, of any stripe: Don’t define me by your ignorance or by your presumptions of my situation.
I have often been criticized for my Cassandra-like forecasts for a rocky, if not altogether disastrous future for America. And yet, a study like Burge’s and Djupe’s only reinforces the sadness I feel when I feel the winds of irreversible change blowing ever stronger, shredding our sails of hope, casting us closer to the rocks of calamity.
America is regressing. A sweeping statement, certainly, but one that I think is shared by more people than I ever thought possible when I was forty years younger. This isn’t a tear-stained rant, with me crying for the good old days. That argument is just a wistful, wishful, wasteful, unsupported speed bump, created in our misty, imperfect, memories to divert attention from what needs to be done in the here and now, not what wasn’t done in the then and there. I don’t want to go back…I want desperately to move forward. But that may no longer be possible, though what we do in November 2020 may help us steer away from the brink.
When I say we are regressing, I don’t mean we are going back to any place we’d even recognize — for better or worse. I mean we are stumbling backward, blindly, toward a dark, unknown place, a place so unfamiliar and unimaginable as to inspire sleepless nights, fearful days, and dread for the days to come before we get to the crumbling rim of that pit.
Forty years ago, I expected we would by now be an integrated society, less bigoted, less judgmental, less fearful. There is no way we would have forecast a resurgence of the Klan, of Nazis, the rise of skinheads, the descent of decency and comity. How could we have predicted the mass shootings, the (fill in the blank) Lives Matter movements, the loss of childhood innocence. A wall of denial along our Southern border was not on our radar in 1980; yes, immigration was an issue, and there was a barrier, but targeting children and taxpaying, job-holding immigrants for deportation at the point of a gun? No, that was not in our 1980 vision.
It was my belief in 1980 that forty years on we would be benefiting more from the fruits of our education systems than we are in 2020. We believed the same ingenuity and sense of pride in exploration and discovery that took us beyond our Earthly boundaries in the 1960s and ’70s would manifest themselves in a general, publicly-embraced desire to continue pushing the boundaries of the world around us to the benefit of all. Today, the cost of higher education eclipses any number we might have imagined in 1980, and the debt shouldered by students and parents is punishing them for their aspirations. To the deniers, science education — even higher-education itself — is worthless now, and their voices are getting louder, abetted by showers of science-denying tweets from the chief executive.
There was no reason, 40 years ago, to think that healthcare in America would be maliciously circumscribed by a mean-spirited, vindictive president and a Republican Senate. There was no way to know then that the Supreme Court, now tilted right, would favor unlimited funding to political campaigns, a decision that would change forever the electoral process and disenfranchise the idea of one citizen, one vote.
I had no reason forty years ago to believe the nuclear family as we knew it would dissolve, disperse, and then reconstitute itself in a form where children return home as semi-functioning adults, grandparents become parents, and parents become children cared for by children.
There was every reason to believe that the institution of federal government would have lifted itself above the morass of the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, and civil unrest and would be working to improve the state of the nation, and not oversee without comment America’s slumping, backward stumbling toward the pit. I guess you had to be there to understand why I would say that, but there were men and women in the Congress — of both parties — who actually stood for serious values, and voiced, without apology or dissembling, their concerns and their ideas for solutions. Really, such people did exist. I was there. Reaching across the aisle was a good thing, not a thing to be scorned and dismissed.
While the threat of incoming missiles remained in 1980, I don’t think any of my peers anticipated that threat coming from North Korea in 2020, nor would we have imagined in our wildest dreams we would have a president who recklessly welcomes such an attack via Twitter and cryptic, smirking asides. It was even more impossible to imagine a U.S. president playing footsies with a Russian president, a former KGB operative known for his violence, repression, and disdain for Europe and the rest of the West. An American president with a bizarre predilection for currying demonstrably false praise from other despotic strong men — Maduro, Erdogan, Xi come to mind — was unthinkable.
Forty years ago, we couldn’t imagine that a soldier could be rotated more than half-a-dozen times into and out of war zones, purposefully over-exposed by the Defense Department, the Congress, and several commanders-in-chief to the mangling horrors of IEDs, and lives forever changed by amputations and traumatic brain injuries. It was bad enough that Vietnam-era warfighters had to endure a year or two — perhaps three — of service in combat, but today, our putative leaders turn blind eyes to the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq — the grinder of those conflicts pushing more fine young men and women into the feeder, with results that are truly unholy and immoral.
Forty years ago, there was no 9/11 on our horizon, no prediction of terrorism — foreign or domestic. We were respected by our allies, respected, grudgingly, by our adversaries. There was no way our 1980 selves would have forecast the doubt, the mistrust, the sideways glances of our friends across both oceans, and it pains many of us to see those looks and hear those whispers. Forty years ago, we would not have dreamed that a Secretary of State would stand for such embarrassment.
Forty years ago, we could not have conceived of a presidential candidate so filled with wack-a-doodle ideas, insufferable hubris, and disdain for anyone not male, white, and wealthy. Not since George Wallace’s — “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” — Jim Crow redux had we experienced a candidate embraced by a vocal minority of Americans who stomped and cheered at the idea of making the nation great again — but only in their mold. But, clearly, Burge and Djupe revealed that minority’s unfurled flag of anger.
Forty years ago, at a time when respect for science, scientific inquiry, and institutions dedicated to Earth and planetary sciences was unquestioned, we did not forecast an administration and Congressional enablers who would so glibly deny the undeniable — that Earth is warming and that governments with their heads in the hot sand are clearly culpable. The poles are melting, the seas are rising, Australia is on fire, the oceans have reached tipping points where they can no longer function as heat and carbon sinks, myriad plant and animal species are threatened or gone…and we have a president who blames wind turbines for cancer, and suggests toilet flushing and poor shower flow are issues he’ll take on.
If Burge’s and Djupe’s data are right, the evangelicals’ fears will be self-fulfilling, spinning up a feedback loop of distrust and irrationality that stretches from their congregations to the White House. Their champion, a failed businessman devoid of any moral or ethical compass, entered the Oval Office not on the popular vote, but on the rusting flatbed pickup of an arcane set of Electoral rules. Those Electors dismissed the public will in favor of a B-grade television buffoon whose misogynistic, bigoted, xenophobic, self-aggrandizing, self-inflating, self-delusional and moronic lunacy relishes the idea of shoving us toward, not away from, the pit of oblivion. Forty years ago, we could not have imagined the fall we are now on the verge of taking.
It is the evangelicals right to dismiss the existential crises of here and now, and choose, instead, to embrace a man whose wild, untruthful pronouncements are designed to quash any hope for a national dialogue among neighbors of differing political and social views. If that is what they want, then they are getting just that. To those evangelicals who fear my Democratic vote, who believe I and those like me have nefarious designs on their guns, their voices, their religion, let me assure them that I simply don’t have time for such nonsensical thinking. There is a world to save, a nation to rebuild, and a community to bring together. That, at least, is my stand.
“How many a year has passed and gone
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I’ve never seen again
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
And I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that”
*Bob Dylan’s Dream, © 1963